Which comes first: the child or the curriculum?

Our nation remains engaged in a profound philosophical debate about the overall direction that education reform shall take, and two intransigent factions have yet to find a workable middle path. However, it is difficult to achieve a compromise when legislators lend credence, first and foremost, to those who are able to fund political campaigns rather than to those who spend their professional lives with children. 

Educators tend to believe that curricula must be shaped to meet the needs of children and business model reformers tend to believe that children must be shaped to meet the demands of the curricula. Educators tend to devote their efforts to inspiring children to become lifelong learners; the corporatists tend to covet short term results on the acquisition of necessary job skills. Thus far we have been engaging in arguments of “either/or” when we should be finding a path to “both/and”… 

For those in the education community, the views of corporate reformers might hold a bit more sway if young people arrived in our classrooms like identical little widgets manufactured in controlled environments with exacting mechanical precision, or even if learners simply were shown to process knowledge in much the same way and at the same pace. Neither assertion, however, applies to children at all.

The wide variance in acquired skills and knowledge of students manifests itself in classrooms at all levels, but it originates between the cradle and pre-kindergarten, well before children meet their first teacher. A kindergarten teacher may supervise between 15 to 30 students who, during the first five years of life in the home, have been exposed to as few as 3,000,000 or as many as 15,000,000 spoken words in the years preceding registering for school.

That one variable, alone, likely affects the academic progress of students and causes repercussions throughout an academic career.

Groups of children, however, present a host of variables of nearly equal scope and gravity. Every day, the classroom teacher must deal with standard deviations above and below the mean for any number of traits, such as: native intelligence, intrinsic motivation, curiosity, the care and attention of nurturing adults, the influence of appropriate role models, English as a Second Language, access to educational resources and adequate nutrition. Children are as infinite in combinations and permutations as are snowflakes, and little people are very nearly as fragile.

As a nation, we appear to love cute slogans like No Child Left Behind or Race to the Top. However, “To the victor goes the spoils!” and “Winner takes all!” are poor drivers for educational achievement. We seem to forget that only one person wins a race. Affluent children tend to start their schooling with an enormous head start in that race long before they ever meet their first teacher, and too many disadvantaged children start that race with their legs bound together at the starting line.  

“No man is an island…” wrote John Donne. Rather than succumb to pressures to subject children to endless competition and social darwinism in the classroom, we must remember that great accomplishments in life are usually the products of cooperation and collaboration. Finally, until our social policies more efficiently ensure that children begin their schooling with all requisite skills for academic achievement, educators will need to focus on adapting curricula to meet the needs of children and not the other way around. 


[The original version of the “Commentary” appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Gazette on Thursday, March 20, 2014. It has been revised and updated.]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s